Can We Compare Russian and European Welfare Polities?

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Linda Cook and Mike Titterton. Click here to access the article.

Why We Compare

Comparisons, as Teddy Roosevelt famously complained, might well be the “thief of joy”. They are, nonetheless, the bread and butter of scholars trying to comprehend how and why welfare states have evolved in the way they have across the European continent. They can throw light on questions such as why variations can be found in the formulation of welfare policies and in their results. Comparisons can tell us why some approaches to tackling social problems work well in some countries but not in others.  They can answer the searching queries made by policymakers, donors, service providers and users, as well as promote the sharing of vital “know how” across regions and country frontiers.

Comparative research can admittedly bog down scholars in seemingly endless – and frankly joyless – debates about appropriate theories and methods for conducting such endeavours.   There are, furthermore, countries and topics that have traditionally been neglected or overlooked in comparative research studies.  Much of the latter has been dominated by Western European states and their concerns. The resulting study frameworks have struggled to comfortably accommodate Central, Eastern and Southern European states, along with their characteristics and histories.  

The Case of Russia

There is one country in particular that has typically been excluded from such comparative exercises and that is the Russian Federation.  It is well nigh time, in our view, that Russia is brought in from the cold.  In 2020, along with Professor Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova and her colleagues, we set up the International Laboratory for Social Integration Research at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow. It was our intention that high quality research of an international nature conducted by university staff and their collaborators would assist this effort.

Europe, Russia and New Social Risks

Our Themed Issue for Social Policy and Society represents an important step on this journey. Under the rubric “Mapping the Shifts in Russian and European Welfare Polities”, our focus is on contemporary Russian, the eight Central-East European states that joined the EU in 2004 (EU8) and the older EU15 states. We have sought to integrate study of these welfare states within the common framework of “new social risks”.

We argue that Russian and European welfare states have been confronting a set of “new social risks”, including ageing populations, destabilised labour markets and family structures, large-scale immigration and accumulated welfare commitments. These new risks have produced broadly convergent social policy challenges and agendas in labour market policies, pension and demographic reforms and since 2019, a new social crisis, covid-19. Despite broadly parallel paths of post-war expansion and contraction, and the shared challenge of ‘new social risks’, these welfare states have been rarely studied within a single comparative framework. 

Welfare Polities

We contend, moreover, that EU15 welfare states are no longer characterised by the stable institutions and political processes implied in regime typologies. Instead, we have developed the concept “welfare polities” to structure comparisons. “Welfare polity” is a more fluid concept than welfare regime, designating the normative framework, policy capability, institutional capacity, and social and political movements that shape and constrain welfare state change. Our suggestion is that this concept offers the potential for re-examining the interaction of state and market, associated political philosophies, and opportunities for political and institutional renewal in a comparative manner.

Comparing EU and Russian States

Contributors to our Themed Issue compare Russian and EU states’ responses to shared challenges that have been at the centre of policy-makers’ attention across cases. These derive from new risks, specifically: maintaining social security provision; halting demographic decline; and responding to social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Each contribution presents a structured set of case studies that compares risks and responses in one of these policy areas for Russia and one or two selected EU states. This includes the financial viability of pension systems; low birth rates and shrinking family size; and cushioning the effects of covid on families and businesses. The comparative case studies confirm the convergence in new risks and challenges faced by Russian and European welfare states.

Cooperation in an Era of Conflict

As we write this, the military conflict that followed Russian military incursions deep into Ukraine in February last year shows little sign of coming to an end.  The conflict was devastating for Ukraine’s civilian population and for the infrastructure of its welfare state. Millions of refugees have crossed borders into Ukraine’s neighbouring countries and many more have been displaced within the country.

At this time of intense difficulty, comparative research and international collaboration amongst Eastern and Western scholars is essential. However, such collaboration across frontiers despite geopolitical complexities provides many obstacles to surmount.  We very much hope that our Themed Section represents a contribution towards meeting this extraordinary challenge.

About the authors

Linda Cook is Professor Emerita at Brown University.

Mike Titterton is Professor affiliated with International Laboratory of Social Integration Research, HSE Moscow.


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